Monday, February 8, 2010

Magnificent Madhya Pradesh - Gwalior and Orchha

Hey folks, I am back with my next travel experience or rather the previous one in terms of chronology but it comes as a post later to Bangriposi.


It was Christmas and I had some free time at my hands since my client's office in the US was closed down for a week after Christmas. My friend Srimanta (who also works in IT) and I at first planned a trip to Darjeeling but later changed our plans owing to the GJM agitation in the hills as an aftermath of the Telengana row. Tickets to most of the other tourist places were unavailable that late in the holiday season. After some frantic research we picked Gwalior. I had been to Madhya Pradesh earlier but did not see this part of the state. We decided to visit some other nearby places from Gwalior since Gwalior in itself did not seem to be a terrific tourist destination and the choice was mostly driven by availability of tickets.

Day 1 – Reaching Gwalior

We boarded the Chambal Express, Sunday evening from Howrah and reached Gwalior the following evening. The journey was near about 24 hours and the train was late for more than an hour on top of it. We befriended a policeman during the last part of the journey and he escorted us to the auto rickshaw stand and even set the rate for us (initially the auto driver was asking for a little more). He seemed to be quite a nice man. We bid him goodbye and went to our hotel. We had booked Hotel Surbhi from and it was a budget accommodation at 700 bucks. The facilities provided were moderate and fit the bill. Only running hot water was not available as was mentioned in but the hotel staff provided us with buckets of hot water as and when asked for. We were dog tired and went to sleep soon after a modest dinner.

Day 2 – Exploring Gwalior

The Palace

Next day we started our tour after breakfast and our first stop was the Jai Vilas Palace - an European style palace built by Maharaja Jiyaji Rao Scindia in the later half of nineteenth century and now converted into a museum. We reached the palace at about half past nine but the palace opened for visitors at ten o’clock only and we spent the time taking snaps from outside.

The entry fee was quite modest (Rs 20 for each person and Rs 25 for each camera – every time I visit such places I am reminded that electronic products are indeed worth more than human beings :-)) and the guide’s charge was also nominal at Rs 50. And on the top of that we were the only visitors so we got the impression that the city is not a very happening tourist destination after all. But once inside the palace we had no complaints as we were very much enjoying the splendor and could get a feel of the luxury of the royal lifestyle. The museum exhibits antiques and personal mementoes that belonged to the members of the Scindia family apart from portraits, stuffed animals, weaponry, crystal works and antique furniture from almost all parts of the world.

The section that displays the stuffed animals (which include tiger, deer, and bison amongst others) have a picture of a hunting team taken on a day when eighteen tigers were killed. Eighteen tigers on a single day, could you believe that.

And then there was the silver train with crystal wagons displayed in one of the banquet halls which contained liquor and dry fruits that moved on miniature rails atop the dining table and the mechanism was such that the train stopped when someone picked up one of the carts of the train.

The guide told us that the palace was constructed by an Italian architect named Col. Sir Michael Filose whose family had served for the princely state of Gwalior for many generations. Both Srimanta and I were busy taking snaps and the solitude allowed us ample time for taking the perfect snaps (that is to say by the standard of us naives of course) which is not a very common experience in such historical monuments where you are always asked to hurry up by the next set of tourists.

But our guide kept telling us to hold our snaps for the last room of the palace tour - the Durbar Hall. The room features two central chandeliers (the world's heaviest crystal chandeliers) weighing 3.5 tons each and eight elephants tested the strength of the roof before they were hung from the ceiling. The room also comprises the largest carpet in Asia – weaved by sixteen jail inmates according to our guide. The walls and ceilings are gild decorated and garlanded with heavy draperies and tapestries. We were stupefied by the sumptuousness of the lavish extravagance and left the palace with a contented note.

The Fort Complex

After lunch we headed for the fort which stands on a steep rock overlooking the city of Gwalior.

The road to the fort is guarded by magnificent statues of Jain Tirthankaras carved out of the rock. But unfortunately many of the statues were destroyed during Aurangzeb’s rule.

The fort area was not very well maintained and it seemed quite obvious with the laughable entry fee of twenty paisa per person. We paid one rupee for two of us since twenty paisa coins have long become extinct and when enquired about this bizarre thing, the guards informed that the government is only keeping a record of the footfall with the entry tickets. Inside the fort area some palaces and temples which are still in better condition are looked after by the Archeological Survey of India but their ticket prices are also paltry Rs 5 and Rs 10. We came to know that the state government is trying to get hold of the authority over the fort and hopefully the condition will change for good in a few years’ time.

Gwalior’s history is traced back to eighth century and the legend is that a chieftain named Suraj Sen with an incurable disease was cured by a saint Gwalipa (who stayed on the hilltop where the fort stands) with drinking water from a nearby well named Suraj Kund. In gratitude he founded the city of Gwalior (named after the saint).

The Tomar dynasty came to power in the fourteenth century and the greatest of the Tomar kings, Man Singh built the Man Mandir palace in late fifteenth century and it still exists with its marvelous medieval architecture in relatively good condition.

Also built by Man Singh was the Gujari Mahal (which has passed the test of times almost unscathed), a monument of love for his Gujar queen Mrignayani. The story goes that the king married a village belle named Nanhi from the Gujar community, impressed by her beauty and bravery. She was renamed as Mrignayani after marriage and became the king’s ninth queen – yes you read it right - it’s ninth. A separate palace was built for Mrignayani in the form of the Gujari Mahal which is at a much lower altitude than the rest of the fort with a constant water supply from the river Rai (which flowed past the queen’s native village) through an aqueduct. The palace has now been converted into an archeological museum.

We hired a guide at Rs 150 who enlightened us with all these historical facts. There were some other monuments as well that he showed us (such as Karan Palace, Jahangir Mahal, Shahjahan Mahal etc) which were erstwhile palaces built by other dynasties including one British arms warehouse but most of them were in ruins.

From our guide we came to know the turbulent and eventful past of the fort which changed hands quite a number of times in nine hundred years. The fort was held by Tomars, Mughals, Marathas, British and finally the Scindias, to name a few. The Gwalior fort was one of the biggest and most unconquerable forts of India which led the Mughal Emperor Babar to refer it as “The pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind”.

The fort had been used as a dungeon during the Mughal regime where royal prisoners (mainly Hindu kings) were incarcerated and killed. Guru Hargobind Singh, the 6th Sikh Guru was also imprisoned here by Emperor Jahangir for over two years and at the time of his release he persuaded Jahangir to release fifty two Hindu kings along with him who were his fellow prisoners in the fort. In memory of this landmark event the Gurudwara Data Bandhi Chhod was built later on.

The fort had also witnessed the sacrifice of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi during the movement that started with Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, which is also recognized as the first freedom movement of India.

The day was coming to the end and we quickly made a visit to a couple of temples within the complex. The first one of them is known as the Saas Bahu Ka Mandir, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, built in eleventh century. The common perception is that the name of the temple denotes reference to Saas (mother-in-law) and Bahu (daughter-in-law) but our guide explained that actually the name is a short form of Shashtra Bahu, another name of Lord Vishnu.

The other temple is called the Teli Ka Mandir, built in ninth century. It is a Pratihara Vishnu temple with some distinct Dravidian style of architecture mixed with the more familiar Indo-Aryan north Indian style, and the story goes that the temple was constructed from the tax money paid by an oil trader, hence the name Teli Ka Mandir.

We also had a view of the Gurudwara and the Scindia School from the outside on our way back to the fort.

The evening was setting in and we rushed back to the Man Mandir Palace for the light-and-sound show after we had our tea and snacks in the cafeteria which is also the place where from one collects the tickets for the show (Rs 50 per person). The light-and-sound show wonderfully enacted the historical events with a voice over by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan whose rich baritone provided the added attraction. We seemed transported to a different time altogether with the show.

We were feeling the chill after sun down that we did not sense during the day time as there was a sudden drop in the temperature and we hurried back to our hotel, exhausted from the day’s toil.

Day 3 – Failed Attempt to Visit Orchha

The third day we thought of visiting Orchha which is about 100 kms from Gwalior. We enquired at the hotel reception and the man in charge told us that we can take a bus to Orchha or a train to Jhansi which is only 10 kms from Orchha and take a local taxi from there to Orchha. My first preference was to take the bus way as I was jittery whether we would get any reservation up to Jhansi in train and went to the bus depot which is just opposite to the station. However, we were taken aback by the conditions of the buses that ply on the route. Moreover, we were informed that there is no direct bus to Orchha and we need to travel up to Jhansi and make other arrangements from there on. And to add to the panic a couple of bus drivers told us that it would take three hours to reach Jhansi only. We discarded our plan to go by bus and went to the station to check out the train option. The Jan Shatabdi Express had left by then and Srimanta was grumbling as he was more inclined to take the train route from the beginning and it was I who had persuaded him to act otherwise. The next express train was the Punjab Mail and we were looking forward to that option. However, to add to our woes, the train kept rescheduling due to running late and ultimately we decided it was late enough to commence our journey that day. As a passing reference I would like to comment that we found all trains arriving late at Gwalior, not being sure whether that had something to do with those particular days of our stay at Gwalior or is it the general norm.

We were contemplating how we would spend the day and the first thing we decided was to visit a McDonalds’ outlet we noticed on our way to the station/depot. One may find our choice a bit weird but we were bored with the vegetarian food that we had to consume at our hotel (which is by the way pure vegetarian). Actually, here I would like to share our experience on the last night when we set out to look for some non-vegetarian food for dinner. The hotel that we stayed in was near a market place and so we thought of chancing upon some good restaurant nearby but soon we came to terms to the fact that there were more garments shop than anything else in the whole of Gwalior. We asked a shop owner where we could find any good restaurant in the locality and he advised to take a stroll for ten to fifteen minutes in a particular direction for some good options. We walked first as he said and then aimlessly for a while but could not see any restaurant. Most of the shops were closed down by then and there were very few auto rickshaws plying on the road and we were becoming apprehensive whether we would be able to make our way back to the hotel. The concern that there we may not find food at the hotel also that late in the night (since the hotel staff specifically requested us to order dinner by nine thirty and it was almost ten thirty then) was not helping our cause either. Finally we found one restaurant, not an extravagant one but small and nice and the irony was that it was pure vegetarian too. I was overwhelmed not to find any non-vegetarian restaurant or even food joint over the entire stretch that we walked but the fact that we observed some meat shops made us believe that all staying there were not vegetarians after all.

After we had some burgers at Mc (that is the only non-vegetarian food that we had in Gwalior) we were considering the places we could not visit the previous day and we started our tour with the Sun Temple which is inspired by the famous sun temple of Konark. Though it is a rather recent monument and the art work is not much to mention about, we found the place quite peaceful which is not very common with temples where daily worships take place.

The next stop was Tansen’s Tomb. Tansen who is one of the most famous Hindustani classical musicians and part of Emperor Akbar’s “Navaratna Sabha” was buried in Gwalior. The tomb is a quite simple one without much grandeur.

Within the same complex is positioned the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Ghous Mohammad which is has a much more imposing structure designed in typical Mughal style. The story goes that Ghous Mohammad bestowed the boon of a son upon Tansen’s parents and was considered Tansen’s godfather.

There was still a lot of time left to us and we thought of revisiting the Gujari Mahal which we could not explore fully the previous day. The inside of the palace has been converted to an ASI museum and most of the sculptures we found there were from a place called Morena (in Madhya Pradesh) and dated back to as early as fifth century. Unfortunately many of the figures (most of them are Hindu deities and mythological characters) are with their heads and hands chopped off, possibly again during Aurangzeb’s rule.

There was nothing else to see and we took our leisurely way back to the hotel experiencing the local shuttle auto rickshaw ride (which has a definite route like buses do, unlike many other cities) and enjoying freshly made sweet from a local sweet shop, on the way.

Day 4 – Discovering Orchha

This was the last day of our stay in Madhya Pradesh. We had booked a car for our trip to Orchha on the previous day. We could not rely on the public transport system any longer, as a fall out of our earlier experience. The Indica (that we hired at Rs 1250) arrived for us a little after nine o’clock in the morning. We checked out of our hotel and started off with our journey. The first halt the driver made was at a road side Hanuman temple and he made us do a small offering to the monkey-god since that is believed to be auspicious by those who travel regularly on that road (to avoid accidents to be precise). I was waiting in the car while Srimanta returned with the “Prasada” of small sugar balls. Our driver started playing the assorted compilation of Hindi songs (mostly sung by Lata Mangeshkar – the nightingale of India) that we listened to for the entire journey (Srimanta was much discontented for not having any Kishore Kumar track in his collection) and we drove through the yellow mustard fields on both sides of the road (that reminded us of the Yash Raj movies).

The journey was without any event and we finally reached Orchha after about three and half hours.

The first monument that we visited in Orchha is the Raja Mahal. The construction of the palace was started by Raja Rudra Pratap in the sixteenth century but was completed in the seventeenth century by one of the most prominent rulers of Orchha, Raja Madhukar Shah. The interiors and the ceilings feature exquisite mural paintings many of which are still in relatively good condition.

Behind the Raja Mahal stands the Jahangir Mahal which was built by Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jahangir to Orchha. The palace boasts of opulent architecture and wandering along the narrow corridors and staircases running around the different courtyards was an amazing experience.

Another palace in the complex is the Rai Parveen Mahal constructed by Raja Indramoni in the seventeenth century. Poetess and Musician Rai Parveen was well known for her captivating beauty but Raja Indramoni sent his paramour to Delhi on the summons of Emperor Akbar’s who was obsessed with her beauty. However, later on Akbar was impressed by her love and loyalty to Indramoni and restored her back to Orchha.

Also located inside the fort complex is Sheesh Mahal which has been converted into a luxury hotel by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation.

Unlike Gwalior, Orchha seemed to be a hot and happening tourist destination and the bulk of the tourist population was foreigners. There were chains of shops just outside the fort complex trading in a wide range of products from handloom to curio. There were a large number of food joints as well (some of them even claiming expertise in Italian food!) and there were internet surfing cafes almost three to four shops apart.

We had some snacks and tea and skipped lunch as it was getting late and we had much more to cover.

On the other side of the road was the temple complex. We visited the Chaturbhuj temple. It is built on a massive stone platform with a flight of steps and the interior was very spacious. But it was almost vacant barring a few tourists and we did not find any deity inside. Within the same complex there was another operational temple, probable of Lord Rama and it looked quite recently built, but we were exhausted by then and did not feel like stepping in.

Before we left Orchha, we made a brief stop by the river Betwa. We drove through a narrow bridge and the view of the temples was magnificent from the other side of the river. There was some nature park on that side of the river but we were running late and rushed back to Gwalior to catch the train.


On our way back to Gwalior, we stopped by a road side dhaba. It appeared that like us our driver too did not have much to eat for the entire day. We were having some friendly chats with the driver who was about our age and he divulged that he had been an accomplice of the local ruffians (some of the names he took and claimed they are quite notorious) and recently took up this driving job. Hearing that, we hoped to reach Gwalior safe and sound :-). Finally we were there at the Gwalior station in the evening to catch the Buldelkhand Express. It was time to bid goodbye to Madhya Pradesh but we were not that depressed since we were looking forward to our journey forward to Varanasi and expecting that the rest part of our vacation in Varanasi would be similarly delightful and we would enjoy to the same extent as we did in Madhya Pradesh.